The Ontario government is strengthening its crackdown on the use of cellphones and vaping in elementary and high schools, giving school leaders the authority to notify parents, take away devices and suspend students who don’t comply.

The new policy builds on a 2019 ban on cellphones in classrooms, which school boards were inconsistent on implementing, according to confidential documents obtained by The Globe and Mail. And groups representing educators and school boards said the new rules could be just as difficult to enforce.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said cellphones are a dangerous distraction for students, and that by restricting their use he expected academic achievement to increase.

“In class, during instructional time, we have a policy: out of sight, out of mind,” Mr. Lecce said on Sunday at an announcement of the ban, which was held at a youth centre in north Toronto.

“And we will support our teachers, our principals and our school boards to implement this dispassionately, across the board, every time. We need to change the culture in schools and I believe this policy will do that.”

Half of the province’s Grade 6 students met the provincial standard in math in the last school year, according to standardized test scores. Literacy scores have remained relatively flat, with roughly 80 per cent meeting standards. In Grade 3, 60 per cent met the standard in math, 65 per cent in writing and 73 per cent in reading.

The new rules in Ontario follow similar moves in other provinces. Last year, Quebec directed its school boards to restrict phone use in classes by Dec. 31, though it left penalties up to local decision-makers. British Columbia announced in January that it would work with school districts to design restrictions in time for this fall, though the details are still being worked out.

Ontario school boards will now be required to develop local policies on restricting students’ use of cellphones, to go into effect for the school year that begins this fall.

The government will require those policies include rules that students in Grade 6 and below must put their cellphones away, powered off or set to silent mode throughout the school day, unless they receive permission from the teacher. Students in Grades 7 to 12 will only be able to access their phones between classes or during lunch. They must put them away during instructional time unless their teacher says otherwise.

If the devices are not stored, an educator must require the student hand it over to be placed in a classroom storage area. Students who don’t comply would be sent to the principal’s office, and they could be suspended.

School boards will also be required to restrict access to all social-media platforms on school WiFi networks and on school devices.

Grace Lee, a spokeswoman for Mr. Lecce, said Ontario would be the first province in the country to restrict access to social-media platforms on school networks.

Draft confidential documents obtained by The Globe ahead of the announcement stated that the government heard about challenges “with a range of inappropriate student behaviours and inconsistencies” among school boards in enforcement.

The province currently mandates that cellphones only be used in class for educational, health and medical purposes, as well as to support special educational needs. However, “sector partners have highlighted that current restrictions on the use of personal mobile devices are difficult to enforce, leading to inconsistencies in how rules are applied,” the documents stated.

Groups representing those working in education said they agreed mobile devices were causing disruption, but said they felt the new rules would be difficult to enforce.

Karen Littlewood, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said that the announcement was positive in terms of students’ mental and physical health. However, she added: “The minister says teachers and administrators will be empowered to address cellphone use but it’s going to take a while to bring about this cultural shift.”

Laura Elliott, executive director of the Council of Ontario Directors of Education, said that the new policies will be challenging from a logistical perspective and she hoped there could be a preventive approach that would be a learning opportunity for students.

Ms. Elliott also said school administrators and educators were not consulted on the changes, which was echoed by Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association.

Ms. Abraham requested the government delay implementation to solicit more feedback on the rules from health experts who understand the complexities of treating youth addiction, as well as to get input from students and parents.

She said school boards have been concerned about vaping and cellphone use among students and have been forced to divert resources to help young people as they struggle with addiction issues.

“We want to be clear – there are no easy solutions to these similar, but differing issues,” Ms. Abraham said, adding: “Simply creating punitive policies that may lead to increased student suspensions and the isolation of children and youth who are experiencing addictions may create more harm than good.”

Cellphones and social-media use by children and young people have been the topic of widespread discussions among parents, policy makers and educators.

However, experts say governments and educators should teach children digital literacy skills and how to manage their social-media behaviour and feelings about it, rather than simply ban the devices or platforms.

Four Ontario school boards recently launched a lawsuit against the parent companies of social-media platforms Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok, accusing them of harming the mental health of students and disrupting learning. None of the allegations have been proven in court. Similar lawsuits have been filed in the United States.

Sunday’s announcement included $15-million in funding to support students at risk of addictive behaviours; $1-million to deliver educational materials on the dangers of vaping and excessive cellphone use; and $1.5-million for local prevention campaigns.

The government also said it would spend $30-million over the next three years to upgrade security equipment to detect vape use on school property.

The Globe and Mail, April 28, 2024